A Short Piece

Focused on What We Cannot Solve

A possible irony and problem of undistinguished focus.

Photo by Martin Adams

Imagine you were forced to look at something you couldn’t do anything about. Torture, right? What if you were forced to look at a problem you couldn’t solve — wouldn’t that eat at you? Well, paradoxically, that’s exactly what we can do to ourselves when we focus on something. Why? Because the wrong kind of focus can turn off our creative brains, making us less dynamic in our thinking and more linear, which can render us unable to solve problems.

Focus is good. We need it. Arguably a major problem today is that none of us can focus on anything because we’re all suffering from ADHD. This is absolutely true, but there also seem to be “different kinds of focus” which we need to acknowledge. In this brief work, I want to talk about “anxious focus” and “creative focus” (I was tempted to say “closed focus” versus “open focus,” but that struck me as too paradoxical).

You ever had the experience of working on a creative problem through daydreaming? In a sense, you’re thinking about the problem all the time, but in another sense you’re letting your mind run free (and “do the work for you,” per se). It’s like you’re coming at the problem “indirectly,” randomly taking strikes at it from this way and then that way, but you’re always coming at it (indirectly). Because of that “always,” it would be crazy to say you’re not focused, but it would also be wrong to conflate this kind of focus with the focus of a kid taking a math test who is pondering a difficult calculus problem. Both seem identical in being “kinds of focus,” but the focus of the daydreamer is not the same as the focus of the student.

Because our “frenemy” brains like “low order complexity” (“the linear”), our brains want to firstly conflate all kinds of focus together as identical, and secondly it wants to bias us toward “direct focus” versus “indirect focus.” We are biased to believe “daydreaming focus” isn’t focus at all, but if it is the case that “creative focus” can sometimes be more effective, then we are biased against what’s effective in favor of a “direct focus” which can make us anxious and unable to think straight. In this way, we can be tricked to think of focus in terms that make focus ineffective. Yes, there’s a time when “direct focus” is needed, but if we think “direct focus” is the only focus, it’s unlikely we’ll prescribe it rightly; rather, we’ll like overprescribe it.

We tend to associate “focus” and “problem solving,” meaning that the more we focus the better we see ourselves at solving problems. But “anxious focus” can actually make us worse problem solvers, because our “right brains” shut down and we become “tunnel visioned.” Not always, but it’s a possibility that our bias in favor of “direct focus as the only focus” can keep us from realizing. As a result, in the name of being good problem solvers, we can become worse problem solvers.

In conclusion, we need to note when we are focusing “anxiously.” This looks like focus and arguably is, but focus that hurts our capacity to solve problems is worthless. What we need is “un-anxious focus,” which for me is often “indirect.’ Now, after hours or weeks of daydreaming about something, I can then “snap” into an hour of hard and direct focus on a problem to write out a paper (once a possible solution hits me), but though this can look anxious, it’s not at all. This is the version of focus which “comes from a place” free of anxiety and isn’t motivated by pressure. Rather, this focus is motivated by excitement.

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